Digging through the stacks of refuse that were generously referred to as “collectibles” at an off the beaten path second hand store, I came across a small rectangular case made of alligator hide. The intricate silver hinges and thick hand stitching on the leather handle told me that it had been made in an era far removed from our current one in which such items would most likely be mass produced with cheap materials on far away Asian factory floors. Assuming that it was a womans makeup case of some sort and probably contained nothing that I might find interesting, I nearly returned it to where I had found it unopened when for some reason I flipped the two latches holding it shut and raised the lid. What I saw was not the expected satin lined container with a few old lipsticks and mascaras, but a glimmering black surface with two gem like emerald and white bakelite knobs. Centered between these knobs was a small chrome toggle switch and under the toggle switch the word “activate” was impressed into the surface. There was a small door under the knobs and upon opening this door, a frayed silk wrapped cord with an ancient two-pronged plug on one end fell to the floor along with three smaller wires, one with a small metal clamp on the end, the remaining two with flesh colored rubber suction cups about the size of a quarter. There was some sort of writing on it that I couldn’t make out. Looking over my shoulder and making sure that the proprietor of the second-hand store was occupied with something else, I grabbed a piece of antique textile on an adjacent shelf and vigorously rubbed the dirt accumulated over decades from the black surface. In a sophisticated art deco script arching over the knobs the words “The Hollywood Beauty Process” revealed themselves as I scoured the last bit of grime from the case. Looking for an electrical outlet and finding one by following a tangle of wires from other assorted obsolete electrical items, I plugged it in, turned the knob on the left to the on position, and with a faint hum and sharp ozone smell, the art deco script and green and white knobs slowly lit up. It was beautiful. What could it be? The knob on the right had a small white mark on it that when turned clockwise, would click into place on numbers one through ten. Mesmerized by the glowing case and gathering the wires that had spilled from the small door into one hand, I hypnotically turned this knob to the right, and then to the left, and back to the right, letting it eventually rest on ten before turning my attention elsewhere in exploring this fascinating little thing I held in my hands. Captivated by its beauty and without really considering the consequences, I flipped the small toggle that said “activate”.
I don’t really remember feeling the electric shock, but I do remember watching the case fall to the floor, seemingly in slow motion. I also don’t recall the sound of bacon frying in a pan although the proprietor of the shop told me that this sound is what alerted him to my location where he found me laying on the floor, twitching he later said after pulling the plug, still gripping the tangle of wires in my right hand. Upon regaining consciousness and tending to the moderate burns on the palm of my hand, the shop owner told me that what I had found was an item purchased by his mother from a long forgotten traveling salesman that was meant to tone and invigorate the muscles of the face. By applying the suction cups to “problem areas” and then attaching the grounding clamp to a finger or other extremity, and then gradually over time working your way up from number one on the knob, the facial muscles could be toned through mild electric shock and a youthful, “Hollywood like appearance” could be attained. “That’s what he told my mother anyway” said the shop owner. “She thought it looked dangerous and never used the thing. It’s been sitting here ever since”. Having now fully regained my faculties and sensing the potential for mayhem that this device could provide at the rendezvous planned by my drinking pals for later in the evening at the local watering hole, I asked maybe a bit too eagerly “how much?” As I walked back to the car with the small alligator case under my arm, I knew that I had paid too much for it. I also knew that no price could be put on that which was to follow.
I smuggled it into the bar stashed under my coat with no one being the wiser and we launched happy hour as we always did, drinking deliberately and quickly to derive maximum inebriation before the prices went up. This particular bar employed a bar keep who consistently thwarted us in our attempts to down the most beer in the least amount of time by dawdling between fill ups, preferring instead to flirt with the occasional female patron in this predominantly male occupied tavern. When the bar-keep presented our tab and feeling that we had been denied his best and most professional services, I reached under my coat and nonchalantly placed the case on the bar and opened it up. “What the hell is that?” asked the tap-tender, suddenly uninterested in lying to the woman who had recently taken up residence at the far end of the bar. “This is how I propose that we settle the tab”. By now my four compatriots had ceased their conversations and were also focused on the small alligator case in front of me. Reaching behind the bar and plugging in “The Hollywood Beauty Process” for perhaps the second time in sixty years, the five of them had the same reaction as I did in the second hand shop when it hummed to life and lit their faces in glowing green and white light. They gazed at it in silent reverence, wondering what it could be.
When I opened the small door on the case and briefly explained that what we were looking at was a pair of electrodes and a ground, a numbered dial and an “activate” switch, their reverence was broken and the purpose of this little device and how I intended to use it became immediately apparent to all. “You’re not puttin’ that thing on me.” said the bar-keep. “You guy’s just pay your tab and put that back under your coat”. If there is one thing that men in the company of other men are proficient in, particularly when fueled with excessive alcohol, it is the ease in which they can talk their fellow men into doing things that in hindsight might seem like a bad idea simply by calling their manly credentials into question. “Don’t be such a pussy. It’s only 110 volts. Whoever hits the highest number and stays on his feet wins. We pay double or we pay nothing. C’mon, I’ll go first”. Just like that, he was in. Of course while it was in fact only 110 volts, what he failed to grasp was that the purpose of the numbered dial was to increase amperage. As you may or may not know in the context of an electric shock, amps provide the oomph, as our bartender was soon to discover.
We had quickly decided upon some ground rules. The first being that the shocks would be self administered. The second rule was that rather than start at a low number and gradually turn the dial to the right increasing amperage until refusal, we would each choose a number, set the dial, and then hit “activate”. The third and only other rule was that a draw would go to the house. Moistening the suction cups with a thumb and a little spit, I placed them about two inches under each ear. Approximately where the jaw bone meets the skull. Attaching the ground to the little finger of my left hand, I set the dial to five and flipped the switch. A strong but tolerable jolt ran through my face followed by a fast rhythmic clenching in the muscles of my jaw. The effect while uncomfortable, was fortunately limited to the immediate area of the suction cups. In the interest however of maximum intimidation of my opponent, I made the rest of my body intentionally rigid and rolled my eyes back in their sockets, accompanied by a rapid fluttering of the lids. After around five seconds I theatrically tore the cups from my jaw and threw them to the bar, downing in one gulp the schooner of suds that the bartender had placed in front of me. “OK, now you.” He looked at me soberly and perhaps a bit warily and said, “Fuck that shit. I’ll pick up the tab. You guys take that thing and get out of here.”
This is not how it was supposed to be. Although I had accomplished the objective of free beer by starting with a high number and forcing my opponent into forfeit with a bit of exaggerated drama, I was left feeling unsatisfied with the nature of my win. Thinking that I had blown it by severely over playing my opening hand, I was reluctantly ready to call it an evening when after a bit of behind the hands discussion, my drinking buddies came to the rescue. “We want in too! Same deal but with a kicker.” they told the bar-tender. “Each of us goes one on one with you. You win and each of us pay the entire amount of the tab. Which ever of us wins, walks. The kicker being that the tab is based on drinks for the balance of the evening.” Our host now had some serious skin in the game and was giving it a second thought. If the tab at the end of the evening came to a couple of hundred bucks, there was the potential of a grand to be had. Raw greed won out over self-preservation as it often does and after coming around to our side of the bar and attaching the electrodes in the same place that I had a few minutes earlier, he readied himself for battle by quaffing his own schooner of beer. Unbeknownst to us, he had devised a strategy that he thought would bring decisive victory. By setting the numbered dial to ten right out of the gate he would out flank his enemies, leaving us with no recourse but a draw and humiliating surrender. Settling onto the bar stool with an ecstatic look of impending victory on his face, he spun the dial to its maximum setting and hit the switch.
Defeat is most bitter when unexpected. In tipping his beer back, the last of it had spilled around the edges of his glass and came to rest around and under the suction cups attached to his mandibles. On the occasion of the last activation witnessed by myself of “The Hollywood Beauty Process”, a loud electrical pop like a circuit breaker tripping was accompanied by an intense blue glow emanating from the mouth of our bar-tender, where evidently a couple of fillings in his back teeth were arcing out on each other. A louder scream followed as our bartender levitated from his seat and fell to the floor. His forgotten girlfriend at the end of the bar rushed to his side, tearing off the electrodes and applying a wet towel from behind the bar to his blistered jaw line. He was swearing loudly and creatively. Although clearly victorious, the stink-eye being applied in our direction by his lady friend and his increasingly aggressive language convinced me that perhaps some gratuity might be in order for our host and I left a twenty on the bar before we made a hasty retreat.
In our rush to vacate the premises before the authorities could be summoned, I left “The Hollywood Beauty Process” on the bar and never laid eyes on it or another again. In hindsight, it’s a shame it was left behind as I think that I could use such a device in the raising of my two teenage boys. In our age of empty threats regarding parental violence when chores and homework remain undone after multiple reminders, the smell of ozone, the sight and sound of crackling blue flame, could have been just the thing to let them know that if pushed too far, I might be capable of anything.